In connection with the new edition of the Perry/Bratman/Fischer anthology Introduction to Philosophy, John Fischer, Patrick Todd, and I have been working on a companion website for students who are using the book, which includes a blog and other online resources. If you haven't checked it out yet, you might be interested to see it by clicking here.
But what you will be most interested in seeing is the interview with Michael McKenna (conducted by Patrick) that is posted below the fold, which we conducted for the purpose of putting it on the companion website (a shorter version of the interview is up on the blog at the intro site). Michael was gracious enough to put a lot of thought and effort into answering our questions in a way that would be accessible to undergraduates, and we are very appreciative of his help. We are posting the full interview here below the fold in the hopes that some Gardeners will find it interesting, as well. Thanks, Michael!
Q: When I began as an undergrad, the life of a philosopher seemed totally mysterious. What's the life of a professional philosopher like? Any strong negatives? Any perks?
MM: Yes, that’s right, first coming to philosophy, the life of a philosopher was, as you put it, totally mysterious. That’s probably because, to the unfamiliar, all philosophers are world-historical figures, like Plato or Descartes. This gives the doubly misleading impression that the study of philosophy is like the study of history, and its subject matter involves understanding what these great figures thought. But a good intro class makes clear that philosophy is an activity, one open to anyone willing and able to think hard about the subject matter. It’s an ongoing dialogue meant to cultivate a deeper understanding of a range of important questions that are interesting for their own sakes, but also often for their relevance to practical matters that directly affect our lives. The most immediate goal of philosophy, then, is not to figure out what anyone else thinks, whether it be Descartes, or your professor for that matter. It is to figure out what you should think. This conviction has its roots in that grand hero Socrates. It was when I came to realize this that I first took seriously pursuing a career in philosophy. To be a part of this conversation seemed to me a worthy way to spend my life.
What is the life of a professional philosopher like? Well, the above is my answer. I am involved in a dynamic, ongoing dialogue that reaches back through the ages. If only a very small way, through conversations and published work, I engage with many others, past and present, who are moved by these questions. Of course, as a teacher, I also have the privilege of introducing this material to student, which is great fun. At least for me, there is no clear distinction between work and play. My work as a professional philosopher is a labor of love. Were I not paid to do it, I’d do whatever I could to pursue it regardless. So in this way, I am a lucky man.
For me, the greatest perk is the quality of the friendships. Here at Florida State University, and at Ithaca College where I previously taught, many of my departmental colleagues are among my closest friends. Conversation over a morning coffee, lunch, dinner, or a single malt scotch late at night often weave in and out of philosophy. I also have amazing friends from all across the country, indeed, from all around the world. When we get together at professional conferences, serious philosophical work is often fused with afternoon walks through the streets of Albuquerque or San Francisco, or instead prime cuisine overlooking Vancouver’s harbor, or cold beers at a place like the guitar god Buddy Guy’s famous Chicago blues bar Legends.
One of my former colleagues at Ithaca College, Steve Schwartz, and I spent many a cold, crisp winter morning cross-country skiing through miles of untracked, fresh snow in the secluded state forests of upstate New York. Sometimes we talked about the adventures of our youths, or how to manage a personal problem, but just as often we talked about whether necessity and possibility must to be understood in terms of possible worlds, or whether for soritic reasons, it is impossible to be moral. Since I was hired here at FSU, I have been especially fortunate that two of my good friends are now also departmental colleagues, Randy Clarke and Al Mele. Both are major figures in my area of expertise. Almost any day that we happen to have lunch together involves an opportunity for an exiting conversation or the spark of a new idea.
As for the strong negatives, there are some. The largest is that the opportunities for a career in philosophy are limited. There are few good jobs and many talented people competing for them. The path to first landing a job, and then securing it by earning tenure is no cakewalk. Though I’d certainly do it over again. It was worth it. I suppose that the other strong negative I would mention is that even with a stable job, not all of them are jobs that give philosophers the work environment to do what they love. Regrettably, higher education is increasing tending toward a corporate model. Administrators are making demands of humanities disciplines that are ill-suited for these fields. Too many philosophers are now teaching at institutions that require them to teach more and more students in too many classes. Teaching volumes of students is thought of like the production of widgets—more is better, especially when the per unit price gets driven down. These forces are, I fear, an assault on the life of philosophy. While philosophers teaching at many quality graduate programs are for the most part protected from these forces (as I am now lucky enough to be), those teaching at mostly undergraduate programs, including some extremely talented and hard working philosophers, are being forced by the sheer volume of their institutions’ demands to devote considerably less of their time to philosophy.
Q: What philosophical issues do you find undergraduates (in general) most interested in? Are these issues significantly different than the issues that were "hot" when you were an undergrad? What's changed since then?
MM: I started teaching philosophy as a grad student at the University of Virginia in 1989, and so I have been at it for going on nearly twenty years. I think some issues have consistently remained of interest to undergrads throughout this time, and I’d bet they’ll continue to fascinate. Cartesian skepticism about knowledge of the external world is one example. The puzzle immediately grips us upon presentation. Given the fact that our experiences are limited in relation to our world (or so it seems), the questions naturally well up. Similar remarks apply about my favorite topic, free will. In large part, I think that most of the core issues of philosophy can be made of relevance to undergraduates. What matters is how they are delivered.
On the other hand, as compared with years past, I do think applied topics more closely related to practical life are easier to motivate than more abstract theoretical issues. I find, for instance, that when I teach an applied ethics course, the students come to life when we move past a survey of moral theory and turn to topics such as the morality of warfare, abortion, euthanasia, affirmative action, recreational drug use and the like. Students love these issues. Or, for example, a course on the meaning of life or the disputed harm of death is far more likely to draw attention than one on universals or causality. So I think I see a trend toward greater interests in more or less applied issues that are closer to answering practical questions about how to live.
Increasing interest in applied issues is probably a good thing. The more young people seek tools for deciding for themselves how to live, and the more they move away from dogmatism, the better. Obviously. But as to what has changed that would explain this shift, I am not sure. Perhaps it’s the social and political environment. The old, pat answers aren’t that helpful any more, and just like when the youths of Athens turned to Socrates for guidance, maybe now young people are doing likewise. I hope so. But I do worry.
I fear that the increasing interest in applied issues and in the more practical dimension of philosophy as in contrast with the more purely theoretical is the result of a student population less skilled in abstract thought, and so for that reason less inclined towards it. More frequently than in the past, I find that students are extremely uncomfortable with theoretical discussions that are not easily grounded in practical examples, especially when the answers, even the range of possible answers, are not clear and determinate. Too often I will have a student ask me what the answer is, when it is to a question such as whether we should regard a human fetus as a person with the right to life. Coming to understand a philosophical debate, often despite my great efforts to resist this, often reduces to memorizing what opposing camps say by way of some formulaic argument. And it is not that I find it impossible to disabuse students of this manner of thinking. But I now need to take more time to do so, and I feel that I can’t reach as many as I used to.
This is a sign of our time, and I suspect that there are a range of factors that influence it. One is that less young people read for pleasure as in the past, and so are less inclined toward a slower paced, contemplative manner of reflecting upon what is before their minds. But also, secondary education in general has tended towards evaluation by way of standardized exams, and so the majority of students are being trained to be good (standardized) test takers, not good thinkers. The upshot is a population of kids coming out of high school who are rewarded for knowing “what the right answer is” rather than for creative ways of coming to good answers that are suited for a constellation of (possibly competing) demands.
Q: It seems like we can get through life just fine without philosophy. Why do it? Why think hard about philosophical issues?
MM: Well, actually, it is not so clear that we can get through life just fine without philosophy. It depends on your standards for getting by. Philosophy does actually have an important practical role to play in life insofar as it is devoted to thinking about the best answers to questions about how one ought to live, what is valuable, whether death is to be avoided at all costs, whether euthanasia is morally wrong, what sorts of governments we ought to promote, the rational foundations for international justice, and so on.
But I take it that what you mean is: why think hard about a philosophical problem in the distinctive way that professional philosophers work on highly specialized problems, ones that do not directly speak to the more practical aspects of life? For surely, we can get by just fine without doing this. Here I have two answers, one is that the payoffs of philosophical inquiry, even the very abstract work, might have important applied value that is many steps removed from application, but all the same significant, in the way NASA’s research winds up generating results that were never expected, thereby allowing for advances in medicine and the like. For instance, neuroscience can benefit from the careful work done by philosophers of mind, such as Daniel Dennett, David Chalmers or Steven Stitch. But a second answer is that one should think hard about these questions just because they are intrinsically interesting. There is no further reason why John Coletrane should have produced his album Blue Train beyond the brilliance of those songs, or why LeBron James should take on three defenders on the way to the hoop other than for the sheer joy of it. Hard thinking about a highly specialized theoretical issue is valuable in the same sort of way. It offers an understanding of our self and our surroundings that has a value intrinsic to it. Working within it is its own reward.
Q: You think about free will a lot. What got you interested in the topic? Does it still captivate you like it did early on?
MM: When I was a sophomore at Thiel College in western Pennsylvania, way back in 1982, I took an interdisciplinary honors seminar on human nature. In it we looked at the topic from a variety of perspectives. At its core, the course was really about two seemingly conflicting standpoints on the human condition, one that understands humans from within the scientific image, and one that presumes that humans bring distinctive value to the world. Are these standpoints really in conflict, and if so, how? A question that easily arises from this one is whether any persons act freely and are morally responsible for what they do if the causal sources of their conduct are all grounded in natural causes. This just is the free will problem.
By the time I entered graduate school in 1986, I came to the free will topic assuming that some form of naturalism is true. Normal, well functioning human beings, I reasoned, are part of a natural order, subject to the same laws of nature as the rest of the natural world, and endowed with no special powers that are not themselves the products of this natural world. As a compatibilist, my inclination is, and it was when I started, to show that the things that make humans valuable, like their ability to act freely and be morally responsible for what they do, are entirely consistent with naturalism.
These topics certainly do captivate me today as much as they did when I first came to think about them. In fact, the more I have learned, the more enthusiastic I have become. Philosophy is very much alive in our time, and the new ideas and theories that have emerged around the issues of free will and moral responsibility have invited a lot of rethinking. Recently, I have become interested in differing theories of moral responsibility. It turns out that how we understand the very concept of what it is to be morally responsible has a bearing on what sort of freedom is required for it. That itself is not all that surprising, but what is surprising is that there are varying strands in our thinking so that it is not clear that in our ordinary thought there is just one concept of moral responsibility. If not, it becomes unclear just how we ought to proceed.
Q: Here's a more philosophical question. There seems to be a lot of talk amongst scientists about free will and how it might be related to the brain. What's your opinion here? Can science tell us if we've got free will (or that we don't)?
MM: Well, thank you for the nice question, though I confess, I am really not the most informed person to ask about these issues. Others working on issues of free will and moral responsibility have taken the lead in thinking about the relevance of recent work in neuroscience. My colleague Al Mele is probably the leading philosopher taking up these topics, though there are others who are also doing a lot of interesting work. I recently attended an intriguing talk on the issue given by Adina Roskies.
Mele’s treatment of the neuroscientist Benjamin Libet’s work is telling. Libet offered surprising data about a distinctive spike in neural activity preceding voluntary action (understood as bodily movement). These spikes occur prior to any conscious awareness of decision or intention. Associating a spike with the onset of decision or intention, Libet concluded from these data that decisions or intention formations occur prior to anything within our conscious awareness. This would have considerable influence on the free will debate to the extent that one would think that our freedom over our decisions or intentions requires conscious awareness of their formation, perhaps as the product of our deliberative efforts. But in Free Will and Luck (OUP, 2006), Mele convincingly points out that Libet makes no distinction between the onset of urges or other motivational precursors or potential causes of decisions or intentions, such as wants or desires, and the decisions or intentions themselves. This leaves it open that what Libet had discovered was something like the neural correlates of the onset of occurent urges, wants or desires, and not anything like decisions or intentions. This would seem to fit with what might be expected, since we do not suppose that in the normal sort of cases, we do have control over what urges, wants, or desires arise in us. Decisions or intentions can then be thought of as following these moments at times that are within the radar of our consciousness. What is especially revealing about Libet’s work is that its shortcoming is precisely the result of a lack of philosophical effort to think carefully about what a decision or intention is as in contrast with an urge, a want or a desire.
So, in my estimation, as illustrated with the case of Libet’s data, I think that scientists can tell us a great deal that is of interest to our understanding of free will. But I also think, as illustrated with the conclusions Libet drew from his findings, scientists are liable to be led astray without the help of serious philosophers. Thus far, the evidence is pretty slim that we have found the source of free will in the neural machinations of the brain. Ultimately, scientists might very well make discoveries about the brain that would shed considerable light on whether we do have free will or whether we do not. I think it would be foolish to resist this possibility. Still, some important qualifications are in order.
Free will is in part a conceptual issue that cannot be settled by science. This is the part that has to do with what we do or should mean by ‘free will’ (and related concepts like ‘intention’ and ‘decision’). Is free will simply the ability to do otherwise, as some philosophers like Peter van Inwagen claim it is? Or is it rather, as I tend to think of it, a kind of control that is required for moral responsibility? If the later, then we need to think about what moral responsibility is and then what sort of control is required for it. Maybe that involves no more and no less than what van Inwagen demands. But maybe not. As I see it, that is an open question. Settling these matters is the work of philosophers. But once they are settled, there are certain empirical implications that flow from the differing views. And if it were to turn out that science could show us that our brains do not work as they would need to for us the have the kind of freedom at issue, that would be something, and we philosophers would have to think carefully about the implications. Of course, it would also be exciting to learn that the brain does work in ways that support this kind of freedom.
As it is, and as illustrated by my brief comments about Libet’s research, much of the work on the brain that is alleged to show evidence for or against free will is pretty far off anything that would reasonably speak to the issue. Recently there was some suggestion floated by neuroscientists and discussed with appropriate critical scrutiny on the Garden of Forking Paths blog site (a site maintained by philosophers of action), that mere spontaneous neural activity is somehow evidence of free will. That is very far off the mark. Mere spontaneous behavior at the neural level of brain activity is not itself able to show that competent moral agents can, for instance, control choices amongst differing courses of action. This suggestion from the scientific community indicates a surprising level of ignorance about what the philosophical issue is that these studies are alleged to shed light upon.
A distinct set of enticing questions arise when we think not so much in terms of whether research on the brain can show us that we do or do not have free will (an all or nothing question), but rather in terms of pockets of our behavior that are influenced by our brain, as well as other factors, in unexpected ways, ways that seem to diminish our freedom or control within these pockets. Recently there has been some discussion of whether teenagers behave impetuously due at least in part to the fact that their brains have not yet fully developed, and so they have greater difficulty with impulse control. And in his book Lack of Character (Cambridge, 2002), John Doris explores all sorts of social contexts, such as the famed Milgram experiments, in which moral personality appears to be compromised in ways that might be thought to mitigate a person’s freedom and responsibility. I think that there are either of two ways to respond to this scientific research (assuming the reliability of it) that are equally misguided. One is to think it even suggests a wholesale skepticism about free will and moral responsibility. Another is that it is entirely unrelated to these considerations. Rather, what this kind of research suggests is that there might well be hidden mitigating factors that should give us reason to reconsider the full scope and degree of the freedom and responsibility we presume. The revisions could be quite dramatic depending upon what the science tells us, or they could be fairly modest. The lesson, though, is to learn from the work of people like Mele and approach the findings with a cautious philosophical eye, lest we get snookered.
Q: You've written on philosophical themes found in The Matrix. As you know, Neo is faced with the choice between the red pill and the blue pill. Pick the red pill, and nothing will remain the same -- one escapes the Matrix, but there's no guarantee one will like it. Take the blue pill, and all remains the same. Sure, one's deceived about how things are, but ignorance is bliss. Or so say those who'd opt for the blue pill. What do you say? Are you a red or blue pill kind of guy?
MM: Great question, though the answer is a bit tricky. I am a red pill kind of guy in two different ways, and as much as I like The Matrix, the fact that there are two different ways to be a red pill guy or gal can cloud the interesting philosophical issues. First, I am a red pill guy insofar as I like a good time, an exciting time, and but for the limitations of the law and the brain cells expended (which I grant are powerful limitations), I see nothing especially objectionable about a psychotropic vacation every now and again—so long as it is a brief vacation. One of the things that makes the red pill choice a cool one for Neo is that it offered him one incredible ride, one much better than the boring life he had working in that cubicle all day. I have managed to throw myself off of twenty foot cliffs on a pair of skis in the middle of nowhere, deep in the Rocky Mountains, just for kicks, but that is no way to match the adventure Neo must have had. So, for reasons of the thrill, sure, I’d like to see what life with the red pill would be like. But I guess that there is a distinct reason that I am a red pill kind of guy, one that I wrote about in my essay on free will as illustrated in The Matrix. Despite my openness to a brief psychotropic trip, I value a kind of authenticity in my actions actually making a difference in the world. I want my conduct to be real and engage the world in the way that the dream world represented by the blue pill does not offer.
To see why the red or blue pill option as presented in The Matrix can be misleading, consider instead a choice between the red or the blue pill but in which the life that you would live in either case would be phenomenologically indistinguishable from the other. In this case, hands down, I would want to have that life in the real world, not in a dream world. I would want to marry and kiss Danielle, my real wife, not an imaginary Danielle, and so on. Naturally, these considerations could be overridden. There was an old Star Trek episode in which a fallen Star Fleet commander was bound to a wrecked body with almost no sensory access to the outside world. But if he were to remain on some planet (can’t remember the details), he could live out his days in some sort of simulated world as a seemingly able-bodied man with a full simulated life, a simulated someone to love, simulated friends, and so on. He wanted to stay. Now, if those were my options, I’d swallow the blue pill and let it ride.
Q: Given your interest in the relationship between philosophy and film, seen any good ones lately that raise philosophical issues?
MM: Actually, I have seen several interesting films lately, including Notes on a Scandal, Fracture, and the last in the Bourne trilogy, the Bourne Ultimatum. But none, I think had any philosophical spark to them. I am, however, about to write an essay on the nature of personhood as it bears on Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, and also another on Christopher Nolan’s Memento, which takes up several striking issues about personal identity. I should also add for anyone interested, I think that one of the best cinematic explorations of morality is Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Compare it alongside the passages on the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic, and then try to find in Allen’s film that perfectly unjust man with all of the trappings of the just man, as well as the perfectly just man with none of them. It is a brilliant film.